The Method of No Method
Originally published backstage.com Oct. 2, 2014.
I was working on Big Time in Hollywood, FL, a very funny new show for Comedy Central (premieres March 25). We were on break and I asked director-sometimes-writer-always-executive-producer Dan Schimpf, “How many times do you get to the set and find that you have to change your game plan?”
Dan laughed and said, “Seriously?”
I said, “Very seriously.”
Dan said, “Well, speaking very seriously, I would say 100 percent of the time.”
“It never goes according to plan?”
“Never. But think about it. How could it? Each scene will have unexpected technical problems. The actors will have different levels of comfort. We could be running out of time. All sorts of things. A big part of directing is adaptation.”
In 60 seconds, Dan unraveled one of the great chasms in actor training. And it’s not working on the part; we study that all of the time. It’s the curve balls you have to deal with before you start to work.
In school, actors learn various methods with which to bring a character to life. This usually involves sense memory, hours of rehearsal, and selecting the right shoes. In the real world, this doesn’t happen.
I just got a part 48 hours before I had to shoot it. In the “real world,” this is code that the producer’s first and probably second choices were unavailable. It also means there was no time to prepare.
My scenes were shot on a yacht. Some may hear those words and think, He’s livin’ the dream. I hear them and think, Dramamine.
I was right. But even then, I didn’t comprehend the difficulty of acting on the high seas. When you shoot on the water, it is hard to walk. It is difficult to hit your marks. A lot of your focus is on not falling overboard. You have to adapt your approach to the character. I always kept a drink in my hand. Any swaying would look like I was just enjoying the party. A lot.
On Big Time, the entire series was cross-boarded. This is when you don’t shoot an individual episode and move on to the next. You shoot bits and pieces of the whole series based on location. As an actor, you have to reset your focus and imagine you are shooting a 300-page motion picture. This takes a completely different type of preparation. You have to read and reread all of the episodes to keep your character’s arc in your head.
In 1967, Marshall McLuhan wrote the cult classic The Medium Is the Massage. The thesis of the book was that the way an idea is presented affects the way we understand the idea. The book’s premise could not have found a more perfect application than in acting today.
Most actor training evolved as if our sole destination was the proscenium stage of the Moscow Art Theatre. Those days are gone. Your only security is in knowing your part as well as time allows, keeping an open mind, and preparing to roll with the punches. You might as well enjoy it. The unexpected happens, as they say, 100 percent of the time.
(P.S. For more about Big Time in Hollywood, FL, check here.)
It’s true that actors aren’t all heading for a career on a proscenium stage anymore. But theater training that involves full-scale productions has advantages over pure classroom work, as I realized back at Southern Methodist University. Assuming you have a knack for it at all, you learn how to think on your feet. Maybe the first time I saw that was during the run of a big musical. An actor onstage dropped something—it may have been jelly beans—that scattered about part of the stage. Another actor had to go on with a broom and tidy it up as part of his business. Simple, but it had to be done, else there could’ve been problems.
Great read. Been reading your blog since I started watching Big Time in Hollywood, FL. Really love when you go into industry terms and give insight into what the production can go like.